After nearly four decades in theater and film, Alfred Molina delivers what may be his best performance to date as famed director Robert Aldrich in Ryan Murphy‘s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” which concluded its run on FX on April 23. While the limited series, which focuses on the decades-long rivalry between screen legends Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), is likely to contend for multiple Emmys this year, it is Molina whose quietly devastating performance deserves long-overdue awards recognition.
As a character, Aldrich spends the majority of the show in a series of no-win situations. Whether it is taking abuse from studio boss Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), dealing with his own failing marriage, or trying to juggle the egos of his leading ladies on the set of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” Aldrich just cannot catch a break.
Eventually, his own ambition gets the better of him when he sees — with Warner’s help — that keeping Crawford and Davis at odds will make for a better film, which in turn will help Aldrich’s career. Molina conveys not only Aldrich’s hesitation and remorse at manipulating his stars, but also the desperation of a man who believes he has greatness within him.
As I wrote in my recap, the series’ fourth episode, entitled “More, or Less,” is truly a showcase for Molina. Aldrich is riding high on the success of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” but is frustrated by Warner’s refusal to give Aldrich better projects. Warner then gives what he calls an honest assessment of Aldrich, calling him a strictly B-list director and a loser. It’s a devastating blow, and Molina conveys all of Aldrich’s hurt without even saying a word.
Aldrich is subjected to further abuse on the set of a comedy-western, this time at the hands of the film’s star Frank Sinatra, who hurls gross insults at both Aldrich and his daughter. Aldrich finally vents his frustrations, but his target is his closest ally, his assistant Pauline (Alison Wright), who has aspirations to direct her own film. It’s one of the few times that Aldrich lets loose, which should play like catnip to Emmy voters.
Like Aldrich, Molina has been sparsely rewarded in the industry, despite numerous nominations. He has received three Lead Actor nominations at the Tony Awards without a win: for the plays “Art” (1998) and “Red” (2010) and the the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” (2004). In 2014 he received his first Emmy nomination for his supporting role in the Emmy-winning adaptation of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” losing to “Sherlock” star Martin Freeman. TV critics are taking notice of Molina’s work on “Feud,” including these two praises:
Melanie McFarland, Salon: “Molina, meanwhile, makes Aldrich as detestable as he is lovable, embodying the sad state of being in the same boat as Crawford and Davis but unable to pass up the promise of rewards if he sells them out.”
Chris Cabin, Collider: “Molina’s take on Aldrich shows a man caught between a lot of not-great decisions, but also an egotistical artist looking at his own legacy and enjoying the poisonous fruits of his reputation – he’s a rampant philanderer and clearly enjoys money.”
Molina may benefit from being submitted in the Movie/Mini Supporting Actor category, which has a long history of rewarding industry veterans. In the last decade alone, the winners in this category have included names like Tom Wilkinson, Ken Howard, David Strathairn, Tom Berenger, James Cromwell and Bill Murray. As a respected character actor who has played everything from comic book super-villain Doctor Octopus (“Spider Man 2”) to a gay music teacher (“Love is Strange,” which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination), Molina has worked with many of the biggest names in film and television. Could his reputation for consistently strong performances lead Molina to his first Emmy triumph?
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